Category Archives: Kepler

Big discovery: first Earth-sized exoplanet in the habitable zone of another star

Artist’s conception of Kepler-186f in orbit around its red dwarf star. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s conception of Kepler-186f in orbit around its red dwarf star. Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Today was another big day for those interested in space exploration, and the search for other Earth-like alien worlds in particular – the first Earth-sized exoplanet orbiting another star in the habitable zone has been discovered, it was announced by astronomers with the Kepler space telescope mission.

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Exoplanet bonanza: Kepler confirms more than 700 new worlds

Illustration showing multiple-transiting planetary systems, such as those found by Kepler. Credit: NASA

Illustration showing multiple-transiting planetary systems, such as those found by Kepler. Credit: NASA

There was more exciting exoplanet news this week from the Kepler mission: the space telescope has confirmed 715 new exoplanets! This brings the current total number of such worlds to 1,766, of which 961 have been found by Kepler. There are still also 3,601 other Kepler planetary candidates awaiting confirmation.

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Kepler discovers exoplanet which ‘wobbles like a toy top’

Diagram showing the eccentric orbit of exoplanet Kepler-413b. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Diagram showing the eccentric orbit of exoplanet Kepler-413b. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Most of us are used to the (usually) gradually changing seasons here on Earth, but astronomers have found an exoplanet where the changes are much more rapid and unpredictable because the planet wobbles like a toy top. The new discovery was announced yesterday, February 4, by scientists from the Kepler space telescope mission.

The planet, Kepler 413-b, orbits a pair of stars 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. It orbits its stars, an orange dwarf and a red dwarf, every 66 days. What’s unusual is that the planet wobbles wildly on its spin axis, which can vary by up to 30 degrees every 11 years. That’s pretty extreme compared to Earth, which shifts its axis by only 23.5 degrees over 26,000 years.

This variation makes it harder to track the planet’s orbit, since Kepler studies exoplanets by watching their transits across the front of their stars as views from Earth. Because of the wobbling, the planet isn’t always visible as a transit.

“Looking at the Kepler data over the course of 1,500 days, we saw three transits in the first 180 days – one transit every 66 days – then we had 800 days with no transits at all. After that, we saw five more transits in a row,” said Veselin Kostov, principal investigator and affiliated with the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

Peter McCullough, a team member with the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University, adds:

“Presumably there are planets out there like this one that we’re not seeing because we’re in the unfavourable period. And that’s one of the things that Veselin is researching: Is there a silent majority of things that we’re not seeing?”

As for habitability, Kepler 413-b isn’t a likely candidate, as it is a super-Neptune sized gas giant which orbits close to its two stars and is therefore much too hot.

Although Kepler is now non-functioning due to mechanical problems (with a possible modified secondary mission now being planned), there is still a lot of data yet to sift through and astronomers expect to still find many more exoplanets and maybe even exomoons.

This article was first published on Examiner.com.

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Kepler 2.0: how ailing space telescope could planet-hunt again

Artist’s illustration of the Kepler space telescope in orbit. Credit: NASA

Artist’s illustration of the Kepler space telescope in orbit. Credit: NASA

There was a lot of disappointment when it was announced that the crippled Kepler Space Telescope would not be able to continue its search for exoplanets after a malfunction left it unable to stabilize enough to focus properly. There was some comfort in the knowledge that there was still a lot of its original data to go through, and that a few thousand planetary candidates had already been found. But now, it seems that Kepler’s assumed death may have been a bit premature.

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Billions of potentially Earth-like planets in our galaxy

Astronomers now estimate that about one in five sun-like stars in our galaxy has an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Credit: UC Berkeley

Astronomers now estimate that about one in five sun-like stars in our galaxy has an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone. Credit: UC Berkeley

Some exciting exoplanet news this week: based on the newest data from the Kepler space telescope, astronomers now estimate that there are billions of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy which are about the same size as Earth and orbit in the habitable zone of their stars, it was announced yesterday.

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Astronomers confirm first Earth-sized rocky exoplanet

Artist's conception of Kepler-7b. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Artist’s conception of Kepler-78b. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

For the first time, an exoplanet orbiting another star has been discovered which is similar to Earth in size, mass and composition, it was announced today. Astronomers confirmed the finding using data from the Kepler space telescope.

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Today’s weather forecast is patchy clouds – on exoplanet Kepler-7b

Size comparison between Kepler-7b (left) and Jupiter (right). Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MIT

Size comparison between Kepler-7b (left) and Jupiter (right).
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MIT

Patchy clouds in the west and clear skies in the east. That is the current weather forecast, not for anywhere on Earth, but for a much more distant world in another solar system. For the first time, astronomers have been able to map cloud patterns on such a far-away exoplanet, it was announced on September 30, 2013.

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Can Kepler be saved? Engineering team to attempt recovery of ailing space telescope

Artist's illustration of Kepler in orbit. Credit: NASA / Kepler mission / Wendy Stenzel

Artist’s illustration of Kepler in orbit. Credit: NASA / Kepler mission / Wendy Stenzel

The Kepler space telescope has been nothing short of incredible, revolutionizing our understanding of exoplanets and showing just how common and diverse they really are (as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction). Recently, however, additional mechanical problems have started plaguing the mission, threatening to cut it short. The news during the past few weeks has been pessimistic, declaring that Kepler’s planet-hunting days are all but over. But there is still hope, as announced by the mission’s engineering team, that further testing later this month can help to resolve the situation.

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Three new possibly habitable ‘super-Earth’ planets discovered

Artist conceptions of the habitable zone planets found so far by Kepler, compared to Earth on the far right. From left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth. Credit: NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech

Artist conceptions of the habitable zone planets found so far by Kepler, compared to Earth on the far right. From left to right: Kepler-22b, Kepler-69c, Kepler-62e, Kepler-62f and Earth.
Credit: NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech

There is some more exciting news from the Kepler space telescope mission – as announced in a NASA press briefing this morning, three more planets have been detected orbiting in their stars’ habitable zones. Larger planets have been found already in this zone around various stars, but what makes this newest discovery so compelling is that these new planets are the smallest found so far in this zone, so-called “super-Earths.” Two of them may even be covered by oceans!

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Kepler discovers tiny moon-sized exoplanet

Artist's conception of Kepler-37b, which is smaller than Mercury and only slightly larger than our Moon. Credit: NASA / Ames / JPL-Caltech

Artist’s conception of Kepler-37b, which is smaller than Mercury and only slightly larger than our moon. Credit: NASA / Ames / JPL-Caltech

The Kepler space telescope has added another significant discovery to its growing list - the smallest exoplanet found so far (again) orbiting a sun-like star, it was announced on Wednesday.

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